Rob has checked out of the Miami West Hotel and is trying to make his way back to the New Coach Inn where Carla has agreed to provide shelter until Hurricane Katrina, which is increasing in intensity, passes through. He's managed to flag down one of the last available taxis in the city and is hoping to make it to the club before everything shuts down. "Secure Refuge" is Chapter Nineteen of thirty.
The storm intensified but the cab driver didn’t rush and took every precaution. Pools of standing water were forming on the streets and it was hard to know which were shallow and which were deeper and dangerous. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed. Every few blocks, someone would dart down a sidewalk or wade across a street leaning into the blowing rain. Several police cruisers, a Domino’s Pizza delivery truck, and a long, black limo passed them on the eerie, vacant streets. Katrina was arriving.
As they trolled along, the gregarious cabbie started talking. His name was Morton Jefferson Reeves III. Morty grew up on the streets of the French Quarter and had lived here all his life. He not only drove a cab, he worked at an African embassy as a translator in two tribal languages he learned from his mother, coached a winning Little League team, studied yoga at a private institute, and was an avid international soccer fan—he played when he was young and showed real promise. He had three boys who were his pride and joy and a wife who was not feeling well tonight. Morty was very much in love with her and when she was in an amorous mood, she called him, “Morty Porty.”
He owned his vehicle and had been driving in the city for sixteen years. For him, it was the job that turned out to be a life-saving opportunity; it took him off the streets and away from trouble—and just in time.
Morty’s dad, Porkpie Reeves, was a well-respected Dixieland trumpet player who made a living playing club dates for most of his life. Little Morty would tag along to his shows and became an informal part of the jazz band’s stage crew and a respectable sound mixer as well. He had nothing but good memories from that part of his childhood. “Those old cats sure knew how to have a good time,” he recalled with a smile. “They were always on. They never stopped.”
When his dad was in his mid-fifties, he got some kind of disease and left town; Morty never saw him again. Mama didn’t talk about it. There were rumors, many rumors, but he “closed that chapter of his life a long time ago.”
Rob told him about his club deal and asked him about the place. Morty said the owner, Paul Werner, had owned several bars in the Quarter and all were pretty successful. He had a reputation for being a “straight shooter.” Morty said the Blue Light was fairly new but seemed to be doing well and he considered it more of a music place than a drinking establishment.
Rob told him about the elegant lady he left behind in Florida, how they never got to say goodbye, and about his “little hurricane problem,” which he admitted he rarely discussed with anyone. It was the only issue that came between him and Lisa Mae and it was the only reason he left.
Could he even think about going back to her? What would it mean? Their lives would change in so many ways—big, unknown ways. Maybe it would it would be better to go home to Seattle and start over from scratch?
No, Morty said, he had to see her again, “Because the real thing doesn’t happen every day and, take it from me, when it does, you’ve got to give it some air.”
Morty said they were just a few blocks from the club. He made a left turn and looked at Rob in the rear view mirror. “It’s all about kids, my friend, it’s all about kids. That’s what’s missing in your life. Kids make all of this worthwhile. They make it all make sense, know what I mean?”
Rob agreed that it was probably true but that would have to happen later in life for him; he was just out of the military and seeing the country and following the music and trying to find some meaning in this life. He’d have plenty of time for a family further on down the road. After a few seconds, he added, “And I guess I’ll have to find myself a wife first.” It was quiet in the cab.
Morty sensed he was a little uncomfortable and changed the subject. “My family is in beautiful Bunkie, Louisiana, tonight—with her relatives—and I should be there, too. Really, neither of us should be anywhere around here tonight.”
He liked Morty; he trusted him. Rob always enjoyed having honest conversations with strangers—he did it a lot—and he knew Morty was unique—there was something special about him.
The taxi radio crackled with a garbled voice and static. Morty appeared to understand it. He keyed the microphone, said a few numbers into it, and hung it up.
“Okay, that’s it, sports fans: that was the emergency order to shut down all units immediately.” he said. “Everyone is supposed to get off the streets and seek shelter now. They’re sayin’ the leading edge of Katrina proper is here and, within minutes, it won’t be safe to be in a motor vehicle.”
They were a block from New Coach Inn. When they pulled up, Morty introduced Rob to what he called his official Abandon Cab command, which he delivered in a comical pirate’s voice. The two of them laughed and splashed toward the club. Morty was now a Katrina refugee as well.
Lovely Carla greeted them at the club’s entrance, hugging Rob and shaking hands with Morty. She asked Rob how he was feeling, to which he sheepishly replied, “Oh, much better.”
“Good, because you owe me something,” she said as she led them through the club back to the vault. Three other stranded persons were already there. Carla introduced them to the two college-age girls who worked part time at the club and were quite frightened at the moment, and to a young, friendly lawyer named Dave.
Carla was a hospitable hostess. “Y’all, we’re probably going to be here for at least a day or two so please make yourselves at home and be comfortable. If you need something, ask me. In the business office next door, we have food and drink on ice, actually more drink than food, but we should be fine. And when you go over there, be careful out in the club—there might be some wind coming through there later on.”
Carla distributed an assortment of colorful pillows and cushions, an air mattress, and a few blankets. The six of them tried to get comfortable in a room never meant for that purpose.
No one was ready to try to sleep yet so they gathered around the main desk. Carla was channeling her anxiety by trying to put everyone else at ease. “So, Dave,” she asked, “What are you doing in the Quarter tonight? Do you live here?”
Thirty-three years old and not long out of law school, it was a mystery even to Dave Howard how a North Dakota farm boy from Bismarck wound up in New Orleans working long hours in an old-fashioned law firm where he was half the age of every other person in the office, secretaries included. It was rewarding on financial levels, he was learning the craft side of the law, his older bosses knew he was good with the younger clients, and he loved New Orleans. He was a single guy and still kind of footloose and the law was his whole life right now. It didn’t matter to him that over half of the firm’s customers were “businessmen from South America.” Not a bit. “Equal justice for all under the law,” as one of his law school profs often repeated.
Dave had to come out on this horrible night to arrange bail for a Columbian businessman client who was busted at customs with a huge amount of cash just before the airport shut down. The businessman and his wife had been in jail for several days and their anger was off the scale. The Columbian ambassador was now involved. The senior partner of the law firm, the esteemed C.B. Bernardo himself, called Dave at home and instructed him to go get the irate clients out of jail immediately—no matter what it took! Mr. Bernardo told Dave the situation was, for the firm, the highest of priorities: “It's a genuine Code Red!”
So, as one of the most serious hurricanes in history made landfall, Dave left home to try to arrange bail for a client, but instead of making it to the police station, he wound up stranded here at the New Coach Inn seeking shelter from the storm. His bosses were going to be pissed but they were lawyers, he reasoned, and lawyers were familiar with Acts of God—they talked about them all the time.
Carla, who was monitoring a short wave radio broadcast, turned to the group and said with an air of excitement, “Y’all, here we go. Katrina’s here.” Somehow, she didn’t seem that concerned. She laughed and cheerfully inquired, “Brewski, anyone?”
Rob and Morty stepped out to the front of the club to take a look. The hurricane was here, all right. Debris was blowing in all directions and sheets of metal clattered and splashed down the street. The powerful winds made quavering and haunting howls as they blasted through the concrete canyons; the monsoon-like rain was intense and local flooding had started. Lightning fired in close intervals and thunder boomed and bumped like giant barrels rolling down stairs. Katrina was making her entrance.
The vault was a secure room, a room inside a room, Carla explained. It was built for maximum security and it was a reinforced, freestanding, steel vault. Independent from the main building, it was built to be a safe room back when New Orleans was a dangerous place. “Look, it even has a high-tech, graphite-reinforced ceiling. Theoretically, we could survive a bomb in here.”
Even deep in the vault, they could hear the muffled wind and the distant pounding of hard rain and hail. “Carla, how many people are still here in the Quarter tonight. Hundreds? Thousands?” Rob asked.
She had talked to a lot of the neighbors in the past twenty-four hours, she said. “Some are stranded, many can’t afford to leave, some have no wheels, but not many are here by choice. There are people up in the high rises, too, but for the most part, everyone who could leave left after the mandatory evac warning.”
Why was she here? “In my case, the owners issued an edict that someone had to be in the building twenty-four seven throughout the storm—something about leases and insurance and lawsuits. They asked for volunteers; I’m new there, so I stepped up. Hey, when this is over, there won’t be a person in the company, from the top down, who doesn’t know my name. I’ll be like, ‘Okay, people, now who’s the team player?’” In Carla’s world, Katrina was a golden opportunity.
Rob had one more question: “Is the vault flood proof?”
The room was quiet. There wasn’t a citizen of this city who didn’t know about the levees and the predictions. How many times before had they asked themselves if this was the one? It was a subject New Orleanians seldom discussed and usually avoided.
Rob wanted to talk to Lisa Mae. It was one thirty in the morning. He wanted to call her right now and tell her what he was doing and why he was doing it and what she meant to him. He was dealing with the storm just fine; better than most, it seemed to him. But no, he couldn’t call her now. He had to accomplish this first.
A short wave bulletin reported quarter-sized hail on the east side of the city, then returned to an endless list of fallen trees and closed roads. The National Weather Service now predicted the full force of Hurricane Katrina would hit New Orleans within the hour.
Carla looked at her checklist—had she remembered everything? She went out into the club to check the breaker box. When she returned, she pulled out some containers of dry food, including power bars and nuts and fruit, along with more bottled water, candles, and flashlights—and a lot of batteries. She presented Rob with her only four-cell Maglite, saying in her lowest voice, “And you, my dear, are the designated keeper of the big light.”
“I’m all about big lights,” Rob said with a slight bow. “Call me the sultan of shine.”
It was a little before three in the morning when Hurricane Katrina angrily stormed into New Orleans, and right there in the middle of it were Carla, Rob, Morty, Dave, and two jittery college girls.
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Secret Lives of Musicians
Secret Lives is the only novel I've published using a pen name. (My middle name is Emmett and my mother's middle name was Orlaine. Hence, Emmett Orlaine.) But this is not a book about music. It's a collection of stories about musicians from different eras who find themselves in international, desperate, and often life-threatening situations and how they improvise and think on their feet to survive. It's a cultural time capsule, it's funny, and it's available for all eBook formats anywhere in the world—and only $4.99.
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